Review Date: December 26, 2006
Released by: Synapse Films
Release date: 11/14/2006
Region 0, NTSC
Widescreen 1.78:1 | 16x9: Yes
Posting a review of a Christmas-themed movie the day after
Christmas may not make much sense (my original intention was to post this on the 25th, but my supervisor ever so kindly scheduled me to work on Christmas day), but in a way it fits this odd little movie, which defies logical expectations about what a film featuring a killer Santa Claus should do. Like so many independently produced horror films, Christmas Evil
has a convoluted distribution history, aggravated by the financial needs of its backers and creative conflicts between them and its director. Available now in its original director’s cut with its original title card (the production title was You Better Watch Out
), Synapse Films has released this long ignored movie with the mass market release.
We open on Christmas Eve, 1947, in the household of young Philip and Harry Stadling. Accompanied by their mother, the two boys hide by the staircase and watch as Santa Claus slips down their chimney and puts presents under their tree. They are then sent to their bedroom, where the two youngsters engage in a spirited debate over what they just saw. Billy insists that it was just their father dressed in a Santa suit, while the more gullible Harry insists that they saw the real thing. Harry proceeds to slip downstairs for one more peek at the Christmas tree, where he gets a tremendous shock. He sees his mother being seduced by the man in the Santa Claus suit! He runs back upstairs, where he smashes a snow globe and then intentionally cuts his hand with a shard of glass.
Flash forward thirty-three years. The two brothers are now well into adulthood, and even though Philip (Jeffrey DeMunn
) is now a well-adjusted man with a family of his own, Harry (Brandon Maggart
) has turned into something of a misfit. Though he has a respectable-looking job as a manager at a local toy factory, he is disrespected by the assembly line employees under his watch, as well as by the more senior executives at the company. He remains unmarried, and lives alone in an apartment adorned with Christmas and Santa Claus decorations. The most disturbing thing about Harry, though, is the fact that he has become a voyeur, spying on the neighborhood kids and keeping books documenting whether they've been naughty or nice.
But as disturbing as Harry’s behavior is, he still has a long way to fall. The problems start when Frank Stoller (Joe Jamrog
), one of Harry’s employees, insults Christmas, and then uses false pretenses to convince Harry to cover one of his shifts on the assembly line. Then, at the company Christmas party the factory head Mr. Fletcher (Scott McKay
) introduces Harry to a new up and coming executive who has come up with an idea to shamelessly score PR points through half-assed toy donations to a local children’s hospital. Suffering from his own internal mental conflicts, and finding himself in a world that cares little about the true values of Christmas, Harry slips into a state of dementia, where he proceeds to put on a Santa Claus suit for a night out on the town, where he rewards the good little kids with the presents they deserve, and punishes the rotten adults with something a lot more lethal than a lump of coal...
plays significantly different than a viewer might expect based on its concept and cover art. It's hardly the typical hack and stab movie and, having been released at the very dawn of the slasher film era (late 1980), it partially stays away from the clichés that we would later learn to associate with the genre. Instead of focusing on the killings, writer-director Lewis Jackson instead focuses on the character of Harry himself. Rather than a straight horror movie, Christmas Evil
is actually a character study of a disturbed individual. Harry is certainly not much of a murderer. Even putting aside the fact that the final tally of his victims can be counted on one hand, there's also the fact that his violence usually seems motivated more by confusion and panic, rather than by traditional bloodlust. Even after Harry goes completely off the deep end, it's still impossible to look at the character as truly menacing, or even as anything other than confused and pathetic.
The strength of the movie lies in the performance of Brandon Maggart as Harry, a performance that hits most of the right notes. Harry is simultaneously pathetic but compelling, and disturbing while still oddly endearing. The character's genuine love for Christmas is perfectly captured. When Harry, dressed as Santa Claus, shows up at a children's hospital to deliver a truckload of toys he stole from the factory, a confrontation that would have turned into a bloodbath in any typical horror film (the hospital guard doesn't want to let him in, and even begins reaching for his gun) instead ends up like the climax of any holiday TV special, with a heartwarming display of Christmas spirit as Harry gets to deliver the gifts. The scene is typical of Jackson's script as a whole - the rest of the movie is also filled with missed opportunities for carnage and mayhem, many of which will probably leave traditional horror fans feeling cheated.
It's Jackson's script that ultimately weakens the movie the most. Jackson's writing is not bad, but it is inefficient. The first forty minutes of the movie focus solely on developing Harry as a character. Though that characterization is essential for explaining Harry's dementia, it also features too many redundant scenes that make the same point about Harry's life. Maggart's performance is strong enough that Harry becomes a fleshed out character early on in the film, and much of the development that follows is unnecessary and wasteful of screen time. It’s easy to find horror movies that put too little effort into character development. To find one that has the exact opposite problem is quite a rare development.
gets a recommendation, but viewers should keep in mind that it is not a typical, by-the-numbers horror film. Those in the mood for a pure Santa slasher would be better off watching the much more exploitive Silent Night, Deadly Night
. Despite flaws in Jackson’s writing and pacing, Christmas Evil
maintains enough originality and skill to keep the average horror fan happy for an hour and a half.
Synapse presents Christmas Evil
in a letterboxed 1.78:1 presentation that is enhanced for 16x9 displays. The film's director of photography was noted Argentinean cinematographer Ricardo Aronovich, and even though his services ended up costing the production significantly more money than planned, watching just a few minutes of Synapse's new transfer proves that it was money well spent. For the most part, the image quality on this release is excellent, bringing out Aronovich's beautiful use of color and lighting. The transfer is sharp and clear, with minimal grain and only a few isolated instances of noticeable damage to the film elements. Color saturation is by and large excellent, although the film's many night scenes do suffer from mediocre shadow detail. The compression and authoring on this disc are first rate, with few noticeable digital artifacts.
The film’s original 2.0 Mono soundtrack is the only audio option. There is little apparent hiss or background noise. It sounds undistinguished but above average overall.
The extras on this release kick off with two commentary tracks, the first with director Lewis Jackson as the sole participant, the second with him and cult director John Waters, who is a huge fan of the movie. The first track is a little bit of a snoozer. Jackson is engaging as a speaker, but there are plenty of large gaps in the commentary, some lasting as long as a couple of minutes. In contrast, the second track is appreciably more lively. Waters acts as a moderator and presses Jackson to talk about the type of things that he doesn't bother with on the solo track (judging by comments he makes on the solo track, he recorded the two commentaries back to back, with the Waters one actually done first; perhaps the reason for the poorer quality on the solo track was simply that he was a little tired of talking about the film by that point).
Six and a half minutes worth of deleted scenes are included. Several of them go into more detail about Harry’s life at the toy factory and his relationship with his boss (in my humble opinion, the first half of the movie might actually have played better if these had been retained, and several ones in the final cut had been tossed). The deleted footage is presented in anamorphic 1.78:1 widescreen, and the visual quality is comparable to that of the film itself.
The most interesting extra is a twenty-six minute excerpt from the original audition tapes that Jackson recorded when he was casting the film. Brandon Maggart and Jeffrey DeMunn both appear, but the really interesting aspect of this feature is the presence of other notable performers who did not land roles in the film. Amongst these actors and actresses are David Rasche (most recently of United 93
and Flags of Our Fathers
), George Dzundza (The Deer Hunter
) and Lindsay Crouse, who is now a familiar face on TV with guest appearances on a wide variety of shows like CSI
Next up are three sets of storyboards for the film. Apparently Jackson storyboarded almost every shot in the entire movie himself, something that would seem to be an incredible feat considering the number of shots and length of the overall film. Also included are some comment cards from a test screening, which humorously showcase the bewildered reaction that many audience members had to the production.
The release is finished off with brief liner notes by Jackson.
Even as we throw away the wrapping paper from our presents and put the browning Christmas tree out on the curb, we can maintain the holiday spirit in our hearts by continuing to watch and appreciate quality yuletide entertainment like Christmas Evil
. This new release from Synapse maintains the company’s usual high standards of audio/visual quality, and is enthusiastically recommended.
NOTE: In 2000, Troma released their own “special edition” DVD of Christmas Evil
. Although it was unavailable to me for comparison to this new release, it does reportedly contain different supplements than the Synapse edition.
Movie – B
Image Quality – B+
Sound - B
Supplements – B
- Running Time - 1 hour 34 minutes
- Rated R
- 1 Disc
- Chapter stops
- English 2.0 Mono
- Commentary track with Lewis Jackson
- Commentary track with Lewis Jackson and John Waters
- Audition tape excerpts
- Audience feedback cards
- Deleted scenes
- Liner notes